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Captain's Log

May 2016

Golden Age of Steam

The Golden Age of Steam

The Golden Age of Steam

Days of Steam, Speed and Style
How many little boys want to be engine drivers? Nowadays the chances are about as many as dream of being plumbers, accountants or systems analysts. Trains - and the locomotives that haul them - have lost their glamour. Sleek, streamlined, functional: they're all these things, but as for being thrilling, inspiring and romantic - sorry, that one left the station a long time ago. Which is why nostalgia for the 'Golden Age of Steam' has such an enduring attraction. After all, power, speed and luxury are a heady mix. But for a truly winning combination you need something more: character, personality, even charisma - and the classic steam trains had them in spades.

The year before Trafalgar, the brilliant Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick designed and built the first steam locomotive to run on rails. It was unnamed, and consequently has been almost forgotten. Eight years later John Blenkinsop and Matthew Murray produced their locomotive. They called it 'Salamanca' and it was the first to be commercially successful. In 1813 'Puffing Billy' hit the tracks followed a year later by George Stephenson's 'Blücher' and in 1825 the 'Rocket'. Names, it seemed, were important. They not only identified the engines and trains, they were vital in what we would term today 'establishing the brand'. And while we're on the subject of marketing, James Watt deserves a mention.

In the 1760s he began working on a steam engine designed by Thomas  Newcomen. Watt's improvements increased the engine's efficiency and power by almost 300% but he needed a way to publicise his achievement. The answer was 'horsepower' a frankly arbitrary measurement that had very little connection with the strength of horses. No matter - the term captured the public's imagination. The age of the train was dawning.

But slowly. Rather like the locos themselves, interest in railways took some time to get going. But by the 1840s they were becoming a craze. Remember the dot-com frenzy of the 1990s? Well that was a faint echo of the railway boom a century and a half before. Surveyors and engineers raced to bore tunnels, dig cuttings, build bridges and lay tracks. Investors shovelled money into the numerous private railway companies and huge fortunes were made, almost overnight.

And rapid returns on investments were matched by ever increasing train speeds. Trevithick's anonymous loco managed just 10mph but Stephenson's 'Rocket' was more than three times as fast. Bigger engines and better designs meant speeds steadily increased, but sprints over a relatively short distance weren't what trains were about. What mattered to the travelling public was the time it took to get from A to B and the railway companies responded by staging races against the clock. These measured average speeds taking into account gradients, stopping at stations and on occasion, a change of locomotive. In 1895 the time from London to Aberdeen - using the recently opened Forth and Tay Bridges - was reduced to eight hours, forty minutes - an average speed of just over 60mph. In the same year an East Coast Express made King's Cross to Grantham (1051/2 miles) in 101 minutes and then thundered on to York - a further 823/4 miles - in 76 minutes, achieving an average speed of 63.3mph. But how fast could trains actually go - with the throttle wide open and the fireman shovelling for all he was worth?

It was claimed that the City of Truro - pride of the Great Western Railway - hit 102.3mph in 1904. To all intents and purposes this would have been the fastest any vehicle had travelled at the time. But lack of official verification means that the Truro's ton-up boast is open to doubt. Which is why the Flying Scotsman holds the authenticated record as the first train to achieve a three figure speed in 1934. And the Mallard's 126 miles per hour - set in 1938 - is still the fastest a steam locomotive has ever gone.

The speeds were thrilling but it was the sense of style that made such a contribution to steam's golden age. The distinctive colour schemes of the carriages, the brass name plates on the engines, haute cuisine in the dining cars - the Brighton Belle was famous for its breakfast kippers and silver coffee pots - all played their part. As did the stations, built like cathedrals. Travelling by train was a little adventure, a rendezvous with romance. Boarding the Golden Arrow night ferry to Paris, snuggling down in a sleeper to Scotland, getting a trim in the hair dressing salon before sipping a Manhattan in the cocktail bar - that was what rail travel was all about.

Those were the days of WH Auden's 'Night Mail crossing the border, shovelling white steam over her shoulder'. A time when engines had names like the Cheltenham Flyer, Silver Jubilee, White Rose and Coronation Scot. Somehow the '10.15 Intercity' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

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